A Bridge and a Budget too Far in Mansfield for the Election

A retrospective look at the town meeting.

It looks like Mansfield residents have been sold a bill of goods. Or sold down the river. Or maybe sold a bridge they have never laid eyes on. 

Whatever they were sold, they bought the farm for sure, voting in a town budget last week that every member of the board of selectmen said they did not want. With 14 more people in the hall at Town Meeting, the whole thing could have gone down in flames. Passing by only 13 votes, it was the closest vote for a town budget any of us has ever seen.

At Wednesday’s selectmen’s meeting, board members were visibly rattled by the aftershocks of last week’s walkout of the finance committee the day after Town Meeting; the finance committee’s most seasoned members were understandably angered and frustrated after they were left out of the “magic bullet” solution to the $3.5 million budget gap. Word is that they represent 60 years of combined experience in the town budget field. Looking at their predictions from just last year, anyone would have to agree they were right on the money as they extrapolated forward the kind of challenges Mansfield would be facing in 2012.

School Superintendent Brenda Hodges and Town Manager Bill Ross figured out a way at the very last minute to make that multimillion dollar gap all but disappear, by using free cash to prop up the operating budget for one more year, ignoring what we all thought, and were told, year after year, was forbidden. The fincom, for all its many hours a week listening to department heads, and trying to get the square peg of requests into the round hole of revenue, was left out of the deliberations. Seems they told too much of the truth. 

The school department set the stage for this ignore-the-rules philosophy last year by using one-time federal stimulus funds to hire staff the town would then be asked to support with taxes going forward. They were warned up, down, and sideways not to do this, and they did it anyway, pulling out of the hat the usual weary rabbit – we have to do it for the children. You guys can solve the rest.

People on the outside are blaming the school committee, the selectmen, the Town Manager, the school Superintendent, dwindling state funding, unfunded state mandates, the general economy, the percentage of kids in town, and the mandatory steps and raises for employees that increase the yearly cost of staff to the taxpayers.

It seems, however, that the situation the whole town is in now is at least partly the product of a pervasive and pernicious attitude that erodes the best attempts at creating wholeness and community within Mansfield and other towns like it. Although it is hard to name, and hard to describe, it is easy to see in action. The best and most visible illustration of this phenomenon for residents recently was the mass exodus of people from Town Meeting right after the school budget was passed.

“It’s the same old political game,” observed Doug Annino at the selectmen’s meeting this week. He added the recommendations of the much-quoted strategic plan process, where transparent cooperation between town and schools was touted as an overall goal, is only so much window dressing when the town budget passes by 13 votes, but the school budget passes overwhelmingly.

“I’m getting tired of people walking out right after the school budget is passed. It’s not fair to all who support the town. To walk out of a room is an embarrassment,” Annino said. “We have to start to grow up here, folks.”

That may be the ticket for sure.

Chairman Jess Aptowitz, formerly one of the most conservative members of the finance committee himself, said the process clearly is not working if residents are so apathetic that they go home when their own issue is settled.

“Whether it’s Article 1 or 712, each is as important,” he said. “You should be participating. We were coming down to the end of the articles and there was no one left. These zoning things are important – it was all empty chairs.”

Long time residents will tell you how critical zoning issues really are. They shape the community, from the quality of your neighborhood to the productivity of the town’s industry and business. They address the future, not just the particular situation of one contingent at the moment.

Aptowitz noted the town election is next week, and urged residents to take part. “Show you are interested in the town – it takes five minutes,” he said.

The major contest on the ballot will be the challenge to school committee member Jim Perry from Wayne Smith, who came within shooting distance of dethroning long-time school committee member Mike Trowbridge last time around, something that should have been a warning to the group.

Both newcomer Smith, and Perry, a retired and much respected teacher in the Mansfield school system, have publicly vowed to push for more open communication between the schools and town, and have actually suggested thinking about the rest of the community as they deliberate the future of the schools. Both have emphasized the importance of long entrenched school union financial mandates in the budget mix.

To be fair, school committee member Jean Miller has publicly expressed her worries about the solidity of town services in the light of the tremendous pressures on the town budget process. But the town badly needs other people on the school side to step from behind the protection of the table and say to us, their constituents, that they are willing to work for everyone, and find a way to be fair.

Residents, in the professional work force or retired, need as well to look at what they can do to add their thoughts to the process as we go forward, not leave the party when the goodies have been eaten. We have a lot of smart people out there. What can we find for solutions to the dilemma that we face, not just for kids and families, but for the rest of the population as well?

Surely if we cannot find a way forward, all of us will suffer. What we value as a community, and what holds us together, is not the triumph of one department over another, but the survival of the whole bunch of us.




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